26 February 2011

Lessons From Wisconsin

Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s, vicious attacks on public sector labour unions are apparently dividing public opinion in the state, and further hardening the polarized divisions (no, not a snide reference to the state’s weather) that serve the private interests of major Tea Party backers. That this entire episode is a cynical, political manipulation that has no intention of serving the authentic and legitimate interests of the people of Wisconsin has recently come to light.

Before I continue, I need to state a disclaimer: I am anti-union in any reasonable workplace. I am also anti-management in any reasonable workplace. Both traditional labour unions and traditional command-and-control, legitimated management (with its associated privilege) are obsolescent artefacts of a prior era, in my opinion.

Now, with that out of the way let me state a truism:
Management create the unions they deserve;
Unions create the management they deserve.
Oppressive, dysfunctional workplaces that are held together by the letter of the collective agreement are always predicated on the ideation of a privileged management keeping unionized workers at bay, rather than a more contemporary ideal of collaborative engagement amongst all members of a workplace, creating a multi-valence incentive for workers to have more skin in the game than merely their pay cheque. One of the most salient, and little noticed, observations that came out of the recent bailout of the auto companies was the realization by union leaders that they now had to take on some of the reality responsibilities formerly delegated upwards to management, and they didn't like it. Why not? Creating such a holistic engagement with the organization compromised union leaders’ ability to make demands solely for the benefit of one privileged class – the unionized workers – over other classes, namely, all of the organization’s other constituencies. This realization illustrates a key point: to create engaged and committed workers, and interested (notably not self-interested) management, all of the organization’s constituent parties must equally and equitably participate in creating a truly collaborative environment, based on commonly constructed and emergent values, and a shared sense of the organization’s tactility.

What’s happening now in Wisconsin is a travesty. A privileged class takes out their supposed fiscal frustration on an underclass, falsely blaming the underclass for structural failings that the privileged themselves created. In response, the underclass is forced to protest, looking like a mob while the elites can claim the so-called high road of supposed fiscal responsibility. What is happening reinforces the apparent necessity for militant, union-vs-management confrontations, widens the gap between privileged and marginalized, polarizes the population, and necessarily increases the level of dysfunction and malicious compliance among organizations. Governor Scott Walker is wrong! wrong! wrong! and not because unions are de facto good, bad, or indifferent. He is wrong because, in the name of fiscal prudence, he is destroying the fabric of organizational effectiveness for the people of Wisconsin through an artificially forced polarization of issues, and his unwillingness to be reasonable himself in favour of cynical, partisan political ends that serve only the American oligarchy.

Although it may be easy to gratuitously criticize unions for their contributions to dysfunctional workplaces, I formed my opinions concerning the obsolescence of unions in reasonable, contemporary workplaces based on my research and writing on Valence Theory. I will admit that my visceral response to union dysfunction was informed during my graduate work, when I was forced to participate in a single-voice union whose radical politics were partially funded by my earned income. This was in a “workplace” that, in fact, was an academic environment in which the “employer” comprised our professors and academic supervisors, our “wage” was our university-provided graduate stipend, and our “benefits” were those afforded to all graduate students, irrespective of whether they had a union “job” or not. What the union sought to do was divide the students, seeking privilege for one class of students – those whom the union represented – while giving a big F! YOU to another. (Many graduate students at OISE were excluded from certain extended health benefits for years because the union provided benefits to its members who consistently blocked the referendum that would extend benefits to all students.)

In other words, a case of a privileged elite keeping everyone else down for their own benefit. Sound familiar? Unions and management are essentially mirror images of each other in almost every workplace. Reflect on this observation when considering closer to home (in my case, Toronto) issues such as eliminating city worker unions through service outsourcing, or how Bob Kinnear and his Amalgamated Transit Union 113 with its texting, sleeping, and sometimes downright hostile operators (not all of them – there are many fine and conscientious TTC operators) are a Frankenstein-like creation of TTC management, commissioners, and Toronto City Hall.

Unions are essential when the workplace would otherwise deal unfairly and inappropriately with the people who constitute them. Management who might want to eliminate unions can effectively and successfully accomplish this laudable goal by ceding their own power and authentically engaging all workers in participatory management and leadership practices.

3 comments:

Atlanta Roofing said...

The union people are special. They deserve their gold-plated plans, lavish benefits and inflated salaries, even when their work performance and productivity is well below the averages in non-union environments. This whole mess is not just about money, it is about the power of the left to impose their will on the public, even when those on the left are the minority. Take away union money, influence and power and the Democrat party will be crippled, and they know it.

Atlanta Roofing said...

The union people are special. They deserve their gold-plated plans, lavish benefits and inflated salaries, even when their work performance and productivity is well below the averages in non-union environments. This whole mess is not just about money, it is about the power of the left to impose their will on the public, even when those on the left are the minority. Take away union money, influence and power and the Democrat party will be crippled, and they know it.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comment, Atlanta Roofing. I think you are right about this being about power, but not union power. Rather, this is about the ideological power of those on the extreme right-wing, who abuse their economic power to manipulate political events and rally those who abdicate independent thinking to the likes of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

What Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin, and what seems to be happening in Ohio is not about a "minority on the left," but rather the abuses of neo-liberal political economy imposed upon previously middle-class workers. It was not the abuses of unionists that created the economic crisis. Rather, it was the capricious, risky, and foolhardy behaviours of Wall Street latter-day robber barons that robbed working Americans of their jobs and homes.

Indeed, it has been the political right that imposed its will on a nation, wasting trillions of dollars on an ill-conceived war, allowing financiers to play fast and loose with people's livelihoods, and then - amazingly - convincing them that fraud and thievery were acceptable and worthy of being rewarded.

All of that being said, you miss my point entirely (not surprising, though). I believe unions are long past their best-before date, as is command-and-control, arbitrary management. However, when those with privilege abuse their position and seek outlandish rewards for themselves while those who actually create wealth are thrown from their jobs and homes, collective action is often the only response. So put that in your TeaPot and drink it!